How Commoners took boring black and white and made basics crazy hot for teens and young at heart

Commoners has taken the road less travelled, paving its way into the retail market by selling mostly black and white-themed clothing – something most uncommon for the perky youngish market it is trying to appeal to.

Sombre, serious, bold and well – mostly basic -- the clothes reflect founder Jae Mills’ minimalist quest. His motto is “Design shouldn’t cost the earth.” Prices for basic tee shirts are listed in the $69-$79 range. Jackets and sweaters are priced higher.

   

Mills’ designs have been available in stores since 2010, but his first store was only launched recently. He started the brand after he spotted a gap in the marketplace for comfortable, well-designed but basic clothing. The brand is inspired by minimalist elements hence the colour palette is relatively monochromatic, he says.

The target for Commoners is the 18 to 40 year-old, both men and women. There is, Mills, believe, still a lot of opportunity in the women’s wear space, as well as the e-commerce space.

With most retailers, the beginning of the journey is always rocky. Yet Mills has gone into the business with not only design pedigree but solid retail experience.

Mills was the 2013 winner of the DHL Express Fashion Export Scholarship – a scholarship into its seventh year. The award identifies top emerging fashion exporters and helps them achieve international growth. Previous winners include Stolen Girfriends Club, Lonely Hearts, twentysevennames and I love Ugly. This year’s winner will be announced tomorrow (Wednesday). The finalists are Georgia Alice, Lucy McIntosh, and Sly Guild.

Mills went to study fashion design at AUT but swapped to computer graphics design instead. After he finished, he has been gathering experience and traveling. He has spent time working with Huffer, as a design assistant; was at Workshop Denim where he headed men’s design for 18 months, and contracted for ASOS among others before being inspired to start his own label. He also worked at Black Box Boutique where he learnt some invaluable lessons on fashion retailing.

“So that’s given me a good understanding of the highs and lows that are a part of this industry. My plan was always to start small and build organically. There has definitely been some hard work but I had a clear plan in place.”

His key focus is delivering a product that has design integrity without the lofty price tag. “Design shouldn’t cost the earth.” All of Commoners clothing is manufactured offshore.

The company’s first store can be found in the plush and trendy Ponsonby and is still a baby, having opened only on July 25, and being only three months old.

The brand’s story, he thinks, has a chance to be told in bricks and mortar form, and there is scope for the store. However he is taking a conservative approach in expanding the physical store.

More offerings

“Having worked for Black Box Boutique for several years as a general manager/ buyer, I knew what I was in for. I was very aware that it’s one thing to open a store but it’s another to maintain and sustain a store. We are quickly learning about our stock turns, lead times and how they affect our retail arm.

“We are also learning the need for more product lines, i.e. accessories,  footwear, etc, to round out our offering. We are lucky in that we are still very small so can quickly make adjustments if we need to.”

Like most businesses aimed at the young and trendy, the company has turned purely to social media to market its brand and clothing.  The company has built networks of followers on Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr.

“This is a really cost-effective method in the early days of a business. Initially we also relied on our wholesales stockists to promote our products through their channels, but in the last 12 – 18 months we have looked to find our own voice and build our own network through our website and various social media platforms.”

Start-up days

In most start-ups' typical lifecycle, there is a steep learning curve on operational matters, and Commoners is no different.

Mills says he has had to learn about managing cashflow and credit cycles but has drawn on good advice given to him over the past three to four years. “We are still putting out fires from time to time but with more experience comes more knowledge.”

His top advice to new businesses: “I think any new business start up should spend time writing a business plan. If you are serious about your business this is so important. Do your profit and loss as well as your cash flow forecast for the first one to three years. The more information you have, the more prepared you are and the more likely you are to succeed.”

Although he loves design, he gets very little time to work on it. “We are a busy little company with limited resources, so it is about juggling a lot of things,” he says.

Over the next 12 months, the company hopes to focus its resources to further tap the New Zealand market, build its brand, and refine its products.

The company is already exporting to Australia, Hong Kong and the US and hopes to make further inroads as a longer-term goal.